The Eighth Marines – Guadalcanal

Preface

The U. S. Marine Corps is part of the naval service organized under the Secretary of the Navy.  Since the American Revolution, the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps have maintained a close relationship.  In the days of sail, U. S. Marine Detachments served aboard Navy ships as sharpshooters, gunners, shipboard security, and as a landing force.  Shipboard Marines served the ship’s captain and received their orders through their detachment commander, whose rank depended on the size of the ship.  The Navy and Marine Corps have a long history of conducting expeditionary operations at sea and on foreign shore in furtherance of United States foreign policy, noting that the Navy-Marine Corps do not make foreign policy; they implement it.

Over these many years, the Navy and Marine Corps developed a distinct naval culture that based on their shared operational experiences, while at the same time retaining their own distinct character.  It has not always been a bed of roses, as significant differences emerged between the Navy and Marines in the period leading up to the Spanish-American War.  Through the Civil War, Marine Officers were often commissioned through patronage rather than through examination and demonstrated leadership potential.  The Marine Corps addressed this problem, and solved it.

When the Navy transitioned from sail to steam, some senior naval officers argued that Marines were no longer needed aboard ship; they would be better employed if formed into expeditionary battalions for use within the fleet.  This particular controversy continued into the early twentieth century.  The fact was that at this time, the Marines did not have a unique mission that only they could perform—only traditional roles that could be as easily performed by sailors or soldiers.

The first employment of Marines as a landing force occurred during the Spanish American War when the Secretary of the Navy directed the formation of a landing battalion for service in the Caribbean.  The battalion was formed with six rifle companies; its commander was Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, and his mission was to secure an advanced base near Santiago, Cuba for use by the Navy as a coaling station.  Soon after going ashore, Huntington and his Marines were confronted by a sizable Spanish force in a nearby village.  Supported by naval gunfire, Huntington defeated the Spanish garrison at Cuzco—and the Marine Corps’ unique mission was at last revealed: amphibious warfare.

There is nothing simple about amphibious operations; it is a highly complex operation and if Mr. Murphy ever had a home, it was tucked away in amphibious warfare.  It was after the Spanish-American War that the Navy and Marine Corps began to develop amphibious warfare doctrine.  This work began in earnest in the Caribbean in 1902 and 1903, and in the Philippine Islands in 1907.  In that same year, Marine Corps planners began to consider a possible war with Japan, which involved the defense of the Philippines.  This planning and training helped the Marine Corps identify inadequate military weapons and equipment.  Important lessons were being learned, but few in Congress, which controls military expenditures, took any notice of these deficiencies or the need for modernization.   

In 1910, the Secretary of the Navy directed the Commandant of the Marine Corps to establish an Advance Base School to train Marine Corps officers in the defense of advanced naval bases.  This work was tested in the Atlantic Fleet exercises in 1913-14.  Subsequently, the Marine Corps formed an Advance Force Brigade whose mission was to assault from the sea, establish a defense on shore, and repel any attack by opposing forces.

World War I interrupted this work, but it was restarted in the 1920s.  In addition to reorganizing the Marine Corps to satisfy its Advance Force framework, other officers began projecting the likely need for amphibious warfare troops.  One of these was Earl Hancock (Pete) Ellis, who actually predicted what the Japanese would do in future decades, and almost precisely when they would begin to do it.

This was the work accomplished prior to World War II, which was uniquely suited to the U. S. Marine Corps.  The officers who re-activated the 8th Marines were all trained in amphibious operations.

Reactivation

After general demobilization of the Armed Forces following World War I, the United States military was little more than a cadre force.  No one back then believed that the United States needed a standing army.  The outbreak of general war in Europe in the fall of 1939 prompted the United States to rethink this proposition.  President Roosevelt and the US Congress began funding a rebuilding and strengthening of the Army-Navy-Marine Corps.  Beginning in 1940, the Marine Corps began to increase the number of its units on active duty.  The first major organization established was the 8th Marines [Note 1]. 

8th Marines was re-activated on 1 April 1940 at San Diego, California.  The regiment then consisted of a headquarters company and two infantry battalions.  Each battalion consisted of a headquarters company and four lettered companies.  It strength was slightly over 1,000 officers and men.  The 8th Marines was initially assigned to the 2nd Marine Brigade and training began immediately.  A third battalion was added on 1 November 1940.

2nd MarDiv Patch
Second Marine Division

In February 1941, two Marine Divisions were activated: the 1st Marine Division in the Caribbean from the then existing 1st Marine Brigade, and the 2nd Marine Division at San Diego from the then existing 2nd Marine Brigade.  The 8th Marines has been part of the 2nd Marine Division ever since.  The 8th Marines (and other regiments) engaged in intensified training at San Clemente Island, off the coast of California, until 7 December 1941 when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor.  The 2nd Marine Division (less the 6th Marines garrisoned in Iceland) was initially instructed to defend the area from the border of Mexico to Oceanside, California against a possible Japanese attack.

Once the initial fear of a Japanese attack abated, the 8th Marines returned to San Diego and prepared for deployment.  The 8th Marines, augmented by 1/10 (an artillery battalion) was detached from the 2nd Marine Division to form the nucleus of a new 2nd Marine Brigade.  On 6 January 1942, the Brigade proceeded to American Samoa to preserve vital communications between the United States, Australia, and New Zealand [Note 2].  The Marines went ashore on 19 January.  1/8 was assigned the job of beach defenses.  When this task was completed, Marines began jungle warfare training.  By the summer, the 8th Marines shifted from a defensive role to preparation for offensive operations against the Empire of Japan.

The 1st Marine Division commenced operations on Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942.  Included in the Guadalcanal campaign were Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Florida, Gavutu, and tanambogo in the southern Solomon Islands.  This was America’s first amphibious assault in World War II and the initial allied ground offensive in the Pacific Ocean Area.  For these Marines, Japanese infantry were only part of the problem.  They also faced oppressive heat, heavy rainfall, malaria, dengue, and fungus.  It would have been nice if the Marines had all of their food stores, but the Navy had landed the Marines and then departed with most of what the Marines needed to sustain themselves in the Solomons.  Lack of adequate nutrition made the Marines more susceptible to disease and the effects of heat and humidity.

Guadalcanal 001
Clearing Operations

By mid-October 1942, it was time to replace the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal.  The US Americal Division began arriving at this time, and they would be reinforced by the 8th Marines, who after 9 months in Samoa, were already acclimatized for jungle warfare.  The 8th Marines landed at Lunga Point on 4 November 1942.  1/8 began clearing operations east of the Tenaru River almost immediately.  2/8 and 3/8 moved to Point Cruz on 10 November where they linked up with the 2nd Marines and elements of the US 164th Infantry Regiment.  This combined force aggressed the village of Kokumbona, encountering sporadic opposition from the ever-willful Japanese soldier.  This advance was halted on 11 November and the Americans recalled across the Matanikau River in preparation for Japanese counter-attack.  General Vandegrift wanted to reinforce Lunga Point.

Vandegrift’s intelligence was golden.  The Japanese Navy were moving thousands of fresh troops to Guadalcanal to confront the Americans.  On the night of 12-13 November, a Japanese covering force for a troop convoy en route to Guadalcanal collided with US Navy escorts for a convoy transporting the US 182nd Infantry Regiment.  The Navy lost two light cruisers and four destroyers; the Japanese lost one battleship and two destroyers.  Navy and Marine aircraft discovered 11 enemy troop transports steaming toward Guadalcanal on 14 November.  American air so pounded these transports that out of 10,000 Japanese troops, only 4,000 came ashore.  That same night, the Japanese lost another battleship and two heavy cruisers.  These engagements all but decided the outcome of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Despite serious losses, the Japanese continued fighting on Guadalcanal into early 1943.  On 18 November 1942, the 8th Marines provided flank security to Army units aggressing the Matanikau River.  A few days later, the 8th Marines passed through the Army and assumed the offense.  On 23 November, the regiment encountered strong opposition.  Casualties were light, but General Vandegrift halted the assault to avoid needless casualties.  Instead, the 8th Marines began a series of combat patrols, which included night ambushes and lightening forays into enemy-held areas.  In the first week, the 8th Marines suffered 111 casualties.

On 12 December, the 8th Marines linked up with the 2nd Marines and began a series of hit and run attacks, designed to keep the Japanese off balance.

General Vandegrift passed overall command of Guadalcanal forces to Major General Alexander M. Patch, commanding the Americal Division.  The 1st Marine Division began retrograde operations to Australia.  No offensive operations took place until 10 January 1943.  At that time, General Patch assigned three divisions to drive out the Japanese who remained on Guadalcanal: US Americal Division, US 25th Infantry Division, and the 2nd Marine Division.  The 2nd Marine Division (now including the 6th Marines) and the Americal Division had orders to seize Cape Esperance by driving along the northern coast.  The 25th Division would approach Cape Esperance by an inland route.  The 25th Division led off the assault followed by the 2nd Marine Division on 13 January.  The 2nd Marines was followed by the 8th Marines.

Guadalcanal 002While the Marines made good progress through the jungle setting, 3/8 encountered withering fire from an entrenched enemy position and all progress came to a halt.  Captain Henry P. Crowe [Note 3], a former enlisted man, commanded the regimental weapons company.  He rushed forward to find out what the problem was and found 3/8 Marines taking cover and somewhat disorganized.  While the Marines thought that Crowe has lost his temper, he was actually rallying them to continue their assault.  At one point, he yelled at the Marines, telling them, “God-damn it, you’ll never get the Purple Heart hiding in a foxhole.  Follow me!”  Crowe led them in a charge that overwhelmed the Japanese position.  Afterward, “Follow Me” became the 2nd Marine Division’s motto.

Patch’s offensive succeeded in pushing the Japanese westward.  The 8th Marines, with naval gunfire support, hammered the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and it was the Marine’s first real test of naval gunfire support of forces in the attack.  On 15 January, the Marines encountered stiff resistance and rushed flame throwers to the point of contact.  It was the first time the weapon was used in the Pacific war.

The 8th Marines were pulled off the line between 16-18 January, serving as Division Reserve.  On 23 January, the US 27th Infantry captured Kokumbona.  By this time, the Japanese realized the futility of trying to hold out against an ever-strengthening American military.  General Patch was so certain that the Japanese were defeated that the 8th Marines began their withdrawal from the Solomons on 31 January.  Weapons Company and 1/8 embarked aboard the USS Crescent City (AP-40) and sailed for New Zealand.

The Japanese began withdrawing their forces from Guadalcanal on 1 February; some 11,000 IJA troops were evacuated during the night of 7-8 February and the island was declared “secure” on 9 February.  On that date, the rest of the regiment boarded USS Hunter Liggett (AP-27) and USS American Legion (AP-35) and sailed for Wellington, arriving on 16 February 1943. 

As with every American serving on Guadalcanal, the Marines were undernourished.  Arriving in New Zealand, the 8th Marines were feed up to five meals a day and they consumed massive quantities of steak, eggs, and mutton.  Hunting parties went into the wilderness and helped themselves to the local deer, which at the time was significantly overpopulated.  Venison was added to the mess hall menu.  They also consumed large quantities of milk, which put a strain on local dairies.  The genuine friendliness of the New Zealanders probably explains why hundreds of Marines ended up marrying local ladies.  

Next week: Tarawa

Sources:

  1. Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the 8th Marines.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1976
  2. Rottman, G. L.  U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002

Endnotes:

  1. The Marine Corps replaced the word “regiment” with “Marines” in the 1930s.  The designation 8th Marines means the 8th regiment of Marines.  Subordinate units within the regiment are designated by the number of the battalion slash the number of the regiment to which they belong.  1/8 is the designation for 1st Battalion, 8th Marines.  The designation of companies within battalions follows a similar arrangement.  Company A, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines would be abbreviated A/1/8 or sometimes Alpha 1/8. 
  2. The 8th Marines was the first Marine Corps regiment to deploy overseas to the Pacific theater in World War II.
  3. Crowe was awarded both the Silver Star and Bronze Star medals for his courage under fire on Guadalcanal.  He had previously served in Haiti, Nicaragua, and China.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

4 thoughts on “The Eighth Marines – Guadalcanal”

  1. I have to wonder after all these defeats of the Japanese – Midway, This engagement, Iwo Jima, and after the Atomic bombs were dropped that there were many of Japanese leadership that wanted to fight on.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Off topic: Any comments of the Hong Kong deal. I read that the PRC is both super strong and actually weak. Someone is not telling the truth.

    Note to all: Both Mustang and I served in the 8th Marines. No, not in WW II, but still a long time ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Masako and Spam Musubi and commented:
    Brave young American men, all of them were. An excellent inisight on the fight for Guadalacanal, undernourished and ill, yet still went into combat against the strong willed Japanese army and navy. Heroes all.

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